The Help, directed by Tate Taylor, succeeds as a women’s picture capturing the moments of sorrow and grace played out in bedrooms, kitchen tables, and living room parlors. However in terms of its social causes, The Help has little to offer in illuminating racial or class discrimination. The film tells several stories which meet in the collaboration of two African American maids, Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, and a white aspiring writer, Skeeter Phelan to document the treatment of black domestics in Jackson, Mississippi around 1963. The film at parts may get you riled- a nasty comment or hasty judgment may even earn your ire, but the film really wants your heartstrings pulled tautly and often.
The Help does little harm and is a sight better than the white protagonist centered narratives like The Ghosts of Mississippi or Amistad, mostly because of the strong performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as Aibileen and Minny. Davis takes this role and turns into something magical. Like her turn in Doubt, Davis can do a lot with little, while completely breaking your heart in longer, emotional scenes. In one scene, Aibileen implores Skeeter not to give up on writing their book, telling a horrific story of her son’s death. The lines on the page aren’t much, but Davis injects such sorrow, anger, and pride into that scene, it doesn’t much matter what she says- only what we feel. Octavia Spencer as Minny gets the funner role, rolling off sarcastic lines, sassy looks, and memorable phrases (mostly surrounding a certain flavor of pie). However, Spencer is more than comic relief, getting some real moments of compassion and frustration.
Emma Stone is quite good here, but her story line never matches what Davis is bringing. Skeeter’s an outsider on the inside of Jackson’s elite community. She wants to write about something that ”disturbs her particularly if it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else,” assuming she’s the only one bothered by segregation and racism. Yet, her curiosity about Aibileen’s life and hardships seems genuine and rooted in her own upbringing by an African American domestic, played by the legend Cicely Tyson. Stone gets a tacked on romantic storyline, meant to show how her social conscious affects her love life, but it just doesn’t amount to much.
Along with Davis and Stone, The Help features a host of stunning performances by Hollywood’s greatest actresses and delightful newcomers. I loved Jessica Chastain (the enigmatic ginger from Tree Of Life) as Celia Foote. I was never sure how Ceila fit into the story and I’m not sure she needed to be there, yet I came to miss Chastain’s bubbly, guileless, and heartwarming persona when she wasn’t on screen. Bryce Dallas Howard, an actress I really like, is quite good here as southern mean girl Hilly Holbrook. In a final scene with Davis, Aibileen calls Hilly “A God-less woman!,” Howard recoils at the whooping recrimination from Davis, yet before she can regain her bully powers, Davis follows with a softer, but even more powerful punch asking, “Aren’t you tired?” Howard begins to melt before us, showing even this hated person has some issues of her own. Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek get applause worthy stands in the film as well.
So when you see The Help bring your Kleenex, but leave your protest signs at home.